Though today the home of Union Swap Meet, 4634 Santa Monica Blvd. once served as the location for pioneering director Lois Weber’s motion picture studio from 1917 through 1925. Ranking as one of the top three directors in 1915, Weber was among the first multi-threat artists to act, direct, write and produce her own pictures. Within a few months, however, 4632 Santa Monica Blvd. will be demolished and leveled to make way for a large-density project.
Director Weber began her entertainment career on the stage with her husband, Phillips Smalley. Born June 13, 1879, in Pennsylvania, Weber was raised in a religious family, singing in the church choir, which led her to serve as a street-corner missionary and singer to prisoners and asylum inmates before moving on to opera, musical comedy and the stage. The talented young woman met her future husband on the boards before they both entered the moving picture business around 1907.
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Above, Lois Weber studies plans for her project.
Smalley and Weber often acted together under the collective title “The Smalleys” for studios such as Reliance and Gaumont, and co-directed scripts written by Weber, as professor Shelley Stamp writes for Weber’s Women Film Pioneers Project’s biography. By 1912, they were placed in charge of Universal Film Manufacturing Company’s brand Rex to continue their production of high-class, highbrow pictures. They produced one- and two-reel films per week with a stock company of actors from scripts written by Weber and co-directed by the two. The two left Universal for a few years before returning in 1916.
Weber displayed a wide range, directing melodrama, action-adventure, drawing room comedy and social issue films dealing with such issues as white slavery, capital punishment, drug abuse, contraception, and wage equity and poverty, huge hits of their time. From 1913 through 1916, Weber directed such films as “Suspense” (1913), featuring a chase scene through Hollywood; “The Dumb Girl of Portici” (1916), an epic film starring dancer Anna Pavlova; “Where Are My Children?” (1916), dealing with the issue of abortion, birth control, and eugenics; and “Shoes” (1916), the story of a teenage shop girl supporting her family on a meager salary.
Stamp points out that Weber was among the first to focus on quality films of social conscience with complex feature-length stories, talking of using films to achieve political change “that will have an influence for good on the public mind” (Photoplay 1913, P. 73). Weber wrote scripts that facilitated discussion of important social issues, directing and producing these stories to ensure her voice and issues were not watered down.
“Domestic hours are well interspersed in the life of Directoress Weber,” according to the original caption for this image.
Audiences flocked to Weber’s films, with her name routinely mentioned along with those of Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith as the outstanding directors of the period. In fact, she was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association. Weber left Universal in 1917 to establish her own company, Lois Weber Productions, moving to 4632/4634 Santa Monica Blvd., the five-acre site of a former residential estate.
1908 newspaper accounts list a 10-room mansion at 421 N. Vermont, perhaps built by real estate man R. (Robert) Fred Vogel, whom city directories list as living at 4714 Santa Monica Blvd. in 1909, 421 N. Vermont in 1911-1912, and then 437 N. Vermont in 1913-1915. Permits show that gardener Frank Plaschil and his son Frank Jr. resided at 4634 Santa Monica Blvd. in 1913, and by 1914, were operating a film stage and laboratory at the site, employing sunlight for filming.
In 1917, Weber leased the property for her company, on property owned by Vogel at 4634 Santa Monica Blvd. on what was known as Conner’s subdivision in the Johanssen Tract. Universal enclosed the 12,000-square-foot outdoor stage per a December 18, 1918, permit, part of her lucrative distribution contract with the studio making her the highest-paid director in Hollywood. She then converted the home into administrative offices, in which such stars as Lew Cody, Anita Stewart, and director Marshall Neilan rented space over the next several years. Unlike other facilities, Weber’s studio offered privacy behind hedges and bushes among lovely grounds, almost like a residence instead of a film studio. Many news stories reported that an old-fashioned house in the middle of gardens served as her studio, a homey spot in which to make films.
Weber finally purchased the studio outright on September 8, 1920, which newspaper accounts reported included closed stage, open stage, projection room, dressing rooms, carpentry and machine shop, laboratory and offices. The October 8 issue of the Los Angeles Herald stated that Weber intended to spend six figures to remodel into a “completely equipped and updated” facility, enlarging it to make it the most modern on the West Coast. The formal opening occurred Sunday, October 31, 1920, with a tennis exhibition match by top players of the time and a reception for 300 guests. During updated landscape work in spring 1921, Weber constructed a swimming pool on the property.
From 1917-1921, Weber produced more intimate films focusing on women, marriage and domesticity such as “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” (1917), “Home” (1919), “What do Men Want?” (1921), “Too Wise Wives” (1921) and “The Blot” (1921). Unfortunately by 1922, Weber’s output drastically declined along with other veteran directors as studios became major conglomerates through the large infusion of Wall Street capital. She directed only six films over the next decade, focusing more on script writing as the industry changed around her, with a focus on more light-hearted, action-oriented films.
On February 10, 1925, Weber pulled a permit to demolish the studio, running ads in the Los Angeles Times stating secondhand lumber for sale, along with the opportunity to move or purchase parts of two small buildings and a 16-room dressing room. She requested multiple permits on October 1, 1926, to construct several small four-room frame duplexes with garages designed by renowned theatre architect B. Marcus Priteca. Weber called this little complex the Garden Village Apartments, with the August 31, 1927, Los Angeles Times’ ad stating they were available for rent at $45 or $50 a month, including garage, perfect for students or writers looking for peace, privacy and quiet.
Permits show an apartment court still onsite in 1943, but by 1950, permits list Fountain Avenue Baptist Church as owner and requesting to erect a tent for revival purposes. Permits were pulled again in 1954 for another revival. Residents complained when boxing promoter Tommy Kennedy proposed to build a 15,000-seat athletic stadium, killing the project. In 1973, Paris Ace Beauty is listed as owner, and Union Swap Meet in 1988.
On January 17, 2019, news stories appeared announcing that Jamison Services planned to erect a seven-story development with 177 units and 5,500 square feet of street-level retail space at this site under TOC requirements that allow construction within a half-mile radius of major transit stops. Unfortunately, neither TOC plans nor the proposed new bill SB50 offer protections for historic buildings, be they listed as Los Angeles’ Historic Cultural Monuments, National Historic Register Landmarks, or structures not yet listed.
That means such properties as the downtown Central Library, First Congregational Church, Veterans Administration property, Cinerama Dome, Chinese Theatre, Hollyhock House, Wiltern Theatre, and many more could fall. Historic Preservation Zones added since 2010 would also see buildings demolished for new construction of density projects, though it takes years, if not decades, for neighborhoods to earn HPOZ status. Most neighborhoods must wait 10-20 years to earn the HPOZ designation, meaning those winning recognition post-2010 applied in 1990 or 2000.
While Lois Weber’s Studio is long gone from the Santa Monica Boulevard site, there are many other historic properties still standing now threatened by these proposals. There is a need for more housing in Los Angeles, but these plans require alterations in order to protect historic structures.